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Folklore: "Is it time for us to legalise poitín and market it abroad? Deasún Breathnach thinks so"

The Irish Times

Irish Times

Features Section; Tuesday, January 13, 1998

In, the traditional Irish drink, often potable in small quantities but, up to recently, very illegal and costly to be caught with, now in one variety is tolerated by the law, and even tastes rather like the "real" thing, though illegality has a very special taste.

Poitin, the traditional Irish drink, often potable in small quantities but, up to recently, very illegal and costly to be caught with, is now - in one variety - tolerated by the law.

A friend had the opportunity recently of tasting the legalised, commercial version, and said it reminded her of a French liqueur. The odds are, therefore, that with that recommendation - and our adoration of the French, especially in this, the Year of the French - it will succeed, and good luck to it.

As for me, alas, I hanker after the usually unobtainable, dangerous to possess. But the fines are enormous.

Ideally, one should be permitted by law to taste poitín from region to region, noting the subtleties of bouquet and flavour produced only partially by a variety of waters.

As a guest, on rare occasions, I am told in a whisper go bhfuil an buachaill istigh - that they have a drop of the ... craytur ... and I approach the altar with caution.

If possible one should bring one's own glass to such occasions, fill it, slip into the lavatory, ignite it and study the colour of the flame. This is a bit more than an artistic experience for, if the liquid flames with a purple tint, it may be safe to drink (in small quantities). If, however, the blaze is red, send it down to the petrol tank, where it may do some good, but not into the stomach.

If, when shaken, bubbles are to be seen which depart slowly (better observed in a bottle), this means that little if any adulteration has taken place and it may be up to the 50 per cent mark or higher. The new, commercial product, incidentally, is advertised on the bottle as at only 40 per cent, which is adequate.

There is a drink available on the Continent called Lacrimi di Cristo, which is very smooth and very pleasant in its lingering on tongue in cheek. A good poitín should behave in like manner.

As many of us might expect, not everyone is of that persuasion. There are dissidents, among them persons from Co Tipperary, who boast of a very well-educated palate. The prize should go to Newport, they say. People from Dublin would reach Newport by taking the Limerick road and turning left at Birdhill.

Occasionally I have been allowed to taste both competitors and I would find it impossible to praise one higher than the other.

However the contest hardly rests there. I once knew a man in Co Galway who used a beer by-product (relished by cows, incidentally) as the basis for a poitín. Again, I was allowed a taste. It was superb.

Our friend - better known, incidentally, as a seannós singer than as a distiller - at that time lived next door to a Garda barracks and made his poitín in situ. How the resident sergeant did not recognise the whiff from that house, available to me at 50 years distant, I do not know. The distiller is now in the company of the angels. in and other goods) made myself known to him and inquired as to the possiblity of acquiring a bottle, curious as I am always about the regional differences. He promised but it never transpired.

Over many years I have been told of a very rare specimen made by the few last speakers of Irish in the Sperrin Mountains of Co Tyrone but I never managed to meet them. They may be in jail, for one reason or another.

Most Dublin aficionados are wont to travel to Co Wicklow where, for some years, traditional methods have been abandoned in favour of the gas bottle which gives the heat for distillation.

In the west, where a very few native distillers have managed to survive, the turf fire on an allegedly uninhabited island on the Corrib with its pall of smoke may very well bring the coup de grace for a great traditionalist when seen at the end of a spy-glass. But maybe that gas-bottle is ag teacht, or is it now part of the heritage?

About the only link missing in the Folklore Commission's pioneering work of the 1930s was a deoch from every poitín region in the country; a poitín museum, if you like (and I'd like it a lot).

Would the present Professor of Folklore, Séamus Ó Catháin of University College, Dublin, care to consider such a project? It would have great potential in the context of the European Union and, indeed, on a wider international plane. Even if a special law had to be passed, so what? After all, if they can sell passports ...

One thing that I cannot understand about the thriving drinks industry in Ireland, apart from the alleged necessity to raise the price of the pint in the midst of a virtually stationary cost of living index, is why we have not gone more into the liqueur business - that strong, sweet, syrupy, alcoholic liquid that sells so well on the Continent.

In my own modest way I have proved (to myself and a few discerning friends) that the making of this excellent product is worthwhile.

Trouble is that, as a base, a clear distillation is required, one of alcoholic content: gin, vodka, white rum . . . But why not poitín, the best of the best?

We have got there on cheese. Why not go the whole hog?